ROME – As the number of global COVID-19 coronavirus infections continues to rise, notably among healthcare workers, Pope Francis in his daily Mass on Tuesday offered special prayers for nurses on International Nurses Day.

Speaking from the small chapel inside the Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta guesthouse, the pope began his livestreamed Mass by asking that viewers join him in praying “for the nurses, men and women, girls and boys, who have this profession, which is more than a profession, it’s a vocation, a dedication.”

Francis’s appeal coincided with the celebration of the 109th International Nurses Day. Designated by the International Council of Nurses (ICN) in 1974, the day is marked annually May 12, the anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, considered to be the first “professional nurse.”

Typically, the ICN commemorates the day distributing healthcare resources and information on nursing; however, this year the day has taken on special significance due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the coronavirus broke out, the World Health Organization had named 2020 the “Year of the Nurse” in honor of Nightingale’s 200th birthday.

In the Hubei province of China, where the coronavirus originated, 22 nurses who worked on the front lines the COVID-19 outbreak in China, as well as medical staff from various Shanghai hospitals, celebrated the day with a gathering in front of a statue of Nightingale at the Shanghai Oriental Land park.

Doctors and nurses have not only been on the front lines of the pandemic, but in many cases, they have been most at risk to due prolonged exposure to the virus, long hours with little sleep, and, in some cases, a shortage of personal protective equipment.

According to a statement from the ICN, as of May 6, at least 90,000 health-care workers worldwide are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, and around 260 nurses had lost their lives to the disease. However, ICN estimates that the numbers could be up to twice that, given shortages in protective equipment and the fact that new numbers are reported almost daily.

During his Mass, Pope Francis asked that “the Lord bless (nurses),” noting that, “In this time of pandemic, they have given an example of heroism and some have given their lives. Let us pray for nurses.”

In a special message put out by the Vatican for the occasion of the International Nurses Day, Pope Francis said COVID-19 has helped humanity to rediscover “the fundamental importance of the role being played by nurses and midwives.”

“Every day we witness the testimony of courage and sacrifice of healthcare workers, and nurses in particular, who, with professionalism, self-sacrifice, and a sense of responsibility and love for neighbor, assist people affected by the virus, even to the point of putting their own health at risk,” he said, and offered prayers for nurses and healthcare workers who have died from the coronavirus.

Noting the unique role nurses and medical staff play in peoples’ lives, he praised them for their “human and humanizing relationship with the sick,” and for the moral responsibility with which they carry out their profession.

“Because of your dedication, you are among the ‘saints next door.’ You are an image of the Church as a ‘field hospital’ that continues to carry out the mission of Jesus Christ, who drew near to and healed people with all kinds of sickness and who stooped down to wash the feet of his disciples,” he said.

Pope Francis also pointed to deficiencies in healthcare systems highlighted by the coronavirus, and urged international leaders to invest in health care “as the primary common good” by reinforcing healthcare systems, hiring a greater number of nurses to ensure each person receives proper care, and investing more in training.

Both nurses and midwives, “deservedly have the right to be better and more fully valued and involved in processes concerning the health of individuals and communities. It has been shown that investing in them improves overall care and health,” he said, and offered them his blessing.

This piece has been updated to reflect the Vatican’s message for International Nurses Day.